Friday, March 30, 2007

Geez, Why Didn't I Think of This?

For the past few weeks, I've been following Elzey's excellent blog, the excelsior file, and its fabulous idea to read about a different fairytale from the Brothers Grimm once a day, and then create a post about a particular story once a week. Elzey calls them Grimmoires (oh, scrumptious word!) and they never fail to amuse. From the latest, "The Twelve Brothers" (you know . . . where the brothers get turned into swans, and Little Sister has to rescue them all without saying a word for seven years) Elzey writes:

One day a King -- some other generic king, different from the girl's father -- is hunting in the woods and his dogs find a girl sitting in a tree. My, but she's a beauty! he thinks I must have this mute girl sitting in the tree for my bride! An without a thought that she might be a dangerous environmental activist they agree to be married.
Yeah, why don't fairytale princes ever do background checks? It would save them ever so much trouble.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Forgotten Book of the Week: Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press, 1936
reissued: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2006

Kids are famous for their obsessions. Dinosaurs, trains, princesses, natural disasters, Vikings, what have you -- I know several small people who are more than willing to spill all sorts of knowledge about their pet topic into a willing ear. What better topic for a picture book than a story of a kid whose favorite-thing wishes are fulfilled?

Enter Little Tim. He loves all things nautical, having grown up along the shore, and spends his time playing on boats on the beach and visiting his friend, the retired Captain McFee. How deep does his love of boats go? "Sometimes Tim would astonish his parents by saying, 'That's a Cunarder' or 'Look at that barquentine on the port bow.'" Tim, who appears to be about five or six years old, is crushed to be informed by his parents that he cannot become a sailor until he is an adult. However, when Tim is given the chance to visit onboard a steamer, he stows away until the ship is out to sea, but then works his way into the good graces of the crew and captain. When the steamer is shipwrecked, Tim bravely stays with the ship's captain until they are rescued, leading to a satisfying conclusion (complete with medals of honor).

There's a charming simplicity to the level of fantasy in this book -- it reads almost like a child's backyard pretend play. Tim heads off to sea without ever worrying if he will be missed, and when he returns home, Mother and Father greet him as complacently and cheerfully as if he had just skipped home from school. The steamer captain gives Tim a good scolding for stowing away (and -- horrors! -- makes him scrub the deck) but underneath, the captain is an old softy who doesn't mind slipping our hero the occasional cup of cocoa. Dangers lurk beneath the ocean waves, but there's always a lifeboat within easy reach to take Tim back to shore. It's just the sort of adventure that I would have relished -- and believed in -- when I was Tim's age.

Let's not forget the illustrations -- it's what Ardizzone is best known for (he was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1956). The scenes in this book are good and salty, as all sea stories should be. Color spreads alternate with black-and-white ink drawings, and all of them manage to properly convey the briny air and slapping waves apropos to sea travel. Even the tones Ardizzone picked for the color illustrations look appropriately washed out, with plenty of greys and blues. The pictures already look as if they've been two years before the mast. Tim's figure is always lithe and big-headed, conveying the perfect blend of innocence and pluck necessary for his character.

This is but one of many "Little Tim" adventures, but is the only one that has been recently reissued. With luck, Frances Lincoln will choose to send out some more, for nobody deserves more adventures and outings than Tim and his very lucky readers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Makes You Appreciate StoveTop So Much More

Take a gander at this lil' lovely I dug up a few days ago. It's an animated version of Edward Lear's poem "Two Old Bachelors." Apparently, this was done as a graduation project by an animation student named Doug Wilson. I don't know the man, but you must give Mad Props to his sense of taste. (Take note of the mugging-via-baguette segment in this flick.) Mr. Wilson, I tip my hat to you.

Our Life In Books: Herbs Ride Again

Ooooooooo! Today, Eleanor and I went thrifting together, and do you know what I found? This:

That's right! A Moulinex herb grater!

Well . . . ours is the 1970s version of this model, so it's bright orange, but basically still the same. If anything, this is certainly a reflection of the awsome effect that Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky is having on my culinary soul. Good grief, the descriptions of food were awesome in that book -- and they weren't necessarily all descriptions of good food, mind you. Lucky has descriptions of dishes from the entire Food Spectrum, from the cheese-in-a-box fried in bacon grease, to diner food to tartes aux pommes. Bar none, the passage that intrigued me the most was the description of the Frenchwoman Brigitte's use of a hand-held herb grater like the one above to sprinkle just about everything with parsley.

It sounded delicious to me when I read this; how the sprinkled parsley gave everything "a freshness, and herb-ness to it." But what I couldn't visualize was how it was possible to hold the grater with one hand, turn the crank with the other, and manage somehow to not have the herbs fall right out of the little feeder on top.

I mean, come on -- you have to manually push cheese into a rotary cheese grater. And onions into a food processor. Did Brigitte have to prop the grater up on the counter with her elbow to keep a hand free to shove the parsley into the grater? Did she jam it all down deep into the feeder? If so, wouldn't the grater jam up? What gives?!?

Sheesh. I mean, I trully can not believe there was such a kerfuffle over the word "scrotum" in this book when there was also THIS conundrum to figure out.

So, you can see why -- no matter what the current state of our overstuffed kitchen cabinets -- buying an herb grater became an Intellectual Imperative. You know. Up there with finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Upon arriving home, we stuck the grater in the dishwasher and waited breathlessly for it to get clean, and once it did so I stuck some parsley in to try it out.

And then . . . drumroll, please . . .

The parsley got completely jammed up in the grater's teeth! Awwww, nuts!

But then . . . my son tipped the grater's cardboard box upside down. Out of the box floated a tiny scrap of paper with about five different languages in it. One of them was in English, and instructed us to turn the grater's handle in a pattern of two forward turns followed by a backwards turn. Whoa. Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san.

The new method worked! As I type this, we have an entire kitchen sink covered with charmingly miniscule flakes of parsley. Now all we need is a kitchen sink full of garlic bread to go with it, and we're set.

Monday, March 26, 2007

New Book Micro-Reviews

Okay, okay. So I had this goal of doing a whole bunch of mini-reviews of new books once a week. But do you know what happened? The mini-reviews turned into mega-reviews. I mean, take a gander at the last one I did. It took me three flippin' hours to write, mainly because I had to do a quick scan of each book so I could remember what I wanted to say about it. Too much information.

So. I'm going to take inspiration from a favorite website of mine, which reviews Pittsburgh restaurants in just a few sentences. It's kind of like a Whitman's Sampler of book reviews. Hopefully, these little tates will tantalize you enough to learn more about these brand-new babes of children's literature.

Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals
Adapted and illustrated by Ashley Bryan
Is it to early to state that this is the book I want to win the Caldecott Medal next year? Bryant's exuberantly colorful paper collages just makes you wanna stand up on a pew somewhere and belt out some tunes. Or better yet, hear Bryan sing 'em himself, 'cause that man is a big ol' walking ball of glad-eyed charisma. This book gives us pitch-perfect rainbow renditions of "This Little Light of Mine," "When the Saints go Marching In," and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." It won't be hard to find this book in a store or library; you need sunglasses just to look at the pages. Golly, it makes my mouth water.

So Sleepy Story
Written and illustrated by Uri Schulevitz
A boy drifts off to sleep amongst the anthropormorphic objects in his room, but when a mysterious melody drifts through the window, everything wakes up and begins to dance for a while before snoozing once more. I love the sombre blue-and-grey palette of the illustrations, and the cute faces given to the chairs and plates reminded me a little of Remi Charlip's Sleepytime Rhyme. But the text! It seems great when you read it silently, but if you're roped into repeat out-loud readings with a child? So, so uninteresting ("sleepy cuckoo-clock/by sleepy dishes/on sleepy shelves/and a sleepy cat/on a sleepy chair"). Kind of a disappointment after the minimalist magic of his Caldecott Honor-winning Snow. But still. It's purty.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls
Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks; illustrated by Faith Ringgold
Revered poet Brooks wrote this collection back in the 1950s in homage to the kids she observed in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The poems are as fresh and universal a portrait of childhood today as they were then -- we are given glimpses into tea parties, snow games, and the pleasures of sitting alone and dreaming; all the good stuff of childhood. Best of all, now these poems have supremely divine illustrations by Ringgold. Better yet, this is the first Ringgold work I've seen in a while that doesn't appear to be . . . um, Dali-esque. (Cough.) Ringgold gives the poems a world of glorious, thick-lined paintings that make you want to feel the summer heat on your back while you play hopscotch in the street. What could be better than that?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Online Exhibit of the Week: The Pop-Up World of Ann Montanaro

Ann Montanaro is the head of Systems and Bibliographic Database Management at Rutgers University, which is all fine and good, but she's also something else. She's someone who has done something about which I (and perhaps many others) secretly dream: her personal library of children's books was made into a special collection of a major university library. And they named it after her! Wow! Now that's what I call immortality.

Montanaro's special interest in the world of children's literature is pop-up books. No big surprise there -- I know lots of people who collect them -- but Montanaro's expertise in the history of the genre is stellar. Not only did she publish a book-length bibliography of pop-up books of yesterday and today, but she also founded the Moveable Book Society, which not only produces a quarterly journal, but a biennial conference -- the perfect resource for anybody looking to collect these fragile yet fascinating works of art.

Pop-ups are one of the few kinds of literature that I find can entrance adults just as wholeheartedly as kids. There has been many a time that I've passed by my library's little shelf of pop-ups to find parents on the floor with their kids and One Red Dot, eagerly peering around the paper structures, gleefully lifting flaps and pulling arrows. I think it is both the transient nature of these books as well as the clever architecture that captures our imaginations: like a soap bubble or a butterfly, we all know that pop-up books don't last very long, and should be enjoyed whole-heartedly while they are around.

The collection on display in the online exhibit does a good job of giving a survey of pop-up books from the 1880s to the 1990s, with books organized into somewhat whimsical themes ("The Birds and the Bees," "The Beautiful and the Bizzare," "Man, You Gotta Move!") inviting armchair tourists to click through the collection at a leisurely pace. The books range from the charmingly Victorian to the bizzarre -- including a pop-up homage to the British royal family.

Each image is given a lengthy annotation describing the context of the book, the artist's other works, and what any visible tabs or flaps are for. Best of all, Montanaro has also contributed a brief history of pop-up books to the exhibit.

Apparently, this was the first online exhibit created for Rutgers, and it shows -- the design of the website is woefully dated, with an ugly grey background. Worst of all, the images of the books were all created with old-style film photography, then scanned to create JPEGs. Although the website provides detailed instructions on how to set your monitor to optimize clarity, the images still come off as grainy and blurred, as you can see from the images I have posted here.

The biggest oversight, of course, is the conspicuous abscence of the works of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Only one Sabuda book, The Christmas Alphabet, is shown in the exhibit, and the list of pop-up book websites does not include a link to the Sabuda/Reinhart workshop, which is arguably one of the best resources on the Web about contemporary pop-ups.

Obviously, these oversights are due to the fact that this exhibit hasn't been touched since its creation in the 1990s. So what? one might ask. It's only an online exhibit.

Yes, but there's something to be said for making collections like these accessible to the public, and that includes the online public. There's nothing wrong with the occasional update, folks. You know, at least one a decade or so. I wouldn't be surprised to see this website showing up on bilbliographies for college courses about children's literature, and if a resource is being used in that way, it deserves to be kept up so it can remain a good source of information.

Okay, okay. I'll just put way my pop-up soapbox for now. (Wouldn't it be handy to have one of those?)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Forgotten Book of the Week: The Duchess Bakes a Cake

by Virginia Kahl
Scribners & Sons, 1955
Reissued: Purple House Press, 1983

Baking mishaps seem like a recurring motif in children's literature, from "The Gingerbread Man" to "In the Night Kitchen" and onwards, and yet I don't ever seem to tire of it. I'm betting that a lot of kids don't, either. Which, of course, brings me to the delightful dottiness of Virginia Kahl's The Duchess Bakes a Cake. Here's how the book begins:

A long time ago there lived over the waters
A Duchess, A Duke, and their family of daughters --
Madeleine, Gwendolyn, Jane and Clothilde,
Caroline, Genevive, Maude and Mathilde,
Willibald, Guinevere, Joan and Brunhilde,
And the youngest of all was the baby, Gunhilde.
Whenever I read this intro, I can't help but be reminded of that other book from the 1950s about twelve little girls in two straight lines. But the similarity ends there. Kahl's story about the Duke and Duchess' prodigious family is set in a world given over to silliness, where adults and children alike play the fool. "They couldn't think often, and hadn't thought much."

The story begins with the angular, Olive-Oyl-Goes-Medieval-style Duchess, who usually likes to spend her time "reading and writing," growing bored and deciding to bake a cake. Being a noblewoman, she hasn't the faintest idea of how to go about making "a lovely light luscious delectable cake," but simply adds ingredients helter-skelter into the bowl:
In went the almonds, the raisins, the suet;
She added some vinegar and dropped in the cruet.
She added the yeast, six times for good measure.
(A light fluffy cake is really a pleasure.)
Predictibly, the cake rises to immense proportions, trapping the Duchess in the air on an enormous mound of dough. "I fear an improper proportion of leaven / Is taking my dear Duchess right up to Heaven," cries the Duke. How will she get back down? The castle folk all have ludicrously impractical ideas, but, of course, it is the Duchess's own children who create the best solution.

Kahl was a librarian, and you can tell: her rhyming text and clever rhymes beg for this book to be read out loud. As for her three-color illustrations, they seem like a cross between Lois Lenski and James Thurber. Thick lines delineate the characters and scenery, and Kahl uses little details to give the characters charm. The palace cook, with his long, upturned nose and spoon on his hip, looks like he fell straight out of a vintage New Yorker cartoon. The thirteen daughters, meanwhile, are simply adorable with their little red caps, white dresses and pudgy green arms. If I had read this book as a child, I would have loved to have a set of dolls that looked just like them.

Kahl wrote several books about the Duke and Duchess' family; this is the most well-known and is the only one that has ever been reissued. This loopy castle community is addictive; if The Duchess Bakes a Cake falls into the hands of any young readers you know, you may find yourself scouring used book markets to collect the whole set.

Aristotle vs. Children's Literature: Tragic Heroes

Over at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, there's a bit of interesting hash going on about the possibility of tragic heroes existing in children's literature. Apparently, this was a question posited by a library patron, and both Liz and the readers who posted comments are in a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not tragic heroes even exist in books for young readers. (Does the tree in The Giving Tree count as a tragic hero? Or just the kid who has to listen to that story?) A commenter named Andrew asked:

I wonder if it's possible to have a strictly Aristotelian tragic hero in a children's book. Do the flaws of even YA protagonists rise to the level of tragedy? I'm not making a qualitative judgment at all--a tragic hero isn't innately any better than another kind of hero. It's just that most YA flaws aren't fatal or insurmountable, and they don't tend to lead to a great reversal of fortune (i.e., death, eyes ripped from sockets, etc.). The flaws aren't but-for-this-he-would-have-been-a-great-King-of-Denmark type flaws. I think if YA had "tragic heroes," the books would have higher body counts.
First question: Andrew, do you want to reconsider The Chocolate War? Does a high body count alone merit a story as "tragic"?

But I'm going to put aside the discussion of YA literature for a bit to go over a bit of how we define "tragic heroes" today. And to do that, I'm going to reference a delightful interview of Ken Gros Louis, who teaches a college course about heroes through the ages at Indiana University Bloomington. About defining what a "tragic hero" is, he writes:

The phrase "tragic hero" has been interpreted differently at different times of history; indeed, the definition often depends on one's interpretation of what history is.

Thus, in classical times, the tragic hero was one who had a tragic flaw that inevitably led to his downfall. But in medieval times, bad things happened to good people, and in a sense, because of the deep belief in resurrection and the afterlife, things that happened in this world didn't matter that much. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the tragic hero, like Hamlet or MacBeth or Othello, was one whose passions often overruled reason--or, put another way, one whose three parts of the soul were not in harmony. I could go on and on because the definition has really not been constant. Think of Job, for example--I'm not sure he would have been considered a tragic hero.

And does the classical definition of tragic heroes still apply in modern times?
The classical definition may work in certain circumstances, although I don't think the phrase "tragic hero" would necessarily apply. Thus, Bill Clinton may have a tragic flaw, but I doubt if most people would put him in the same category as the classical tragic heroes.
With this flexibility in mind, I'm going be a little bold and say that tragic heroes in children's literature can only exist in stories that end badly -- that are true tragedies. So, what are those?
In books for children, stories with truly unhappy endings tend to be tempered with that ever-pervasive "sense of hope" that leads us to believe that something good still exists for the protagonist in the future. Also, with the rise of realism in literature for kids, most disasters happen as a result of chance, or the consequences of a social system gone wrong. So, we have stories like Kira-Kira, Out of the Dust, Bridge to Terabithia, or even The Red Rose Box. In these stories, bad stuff simply happens. To find true tragic heroes, I think, you'd have to go back to a time before modernism hit the kidlit world. When the sensibility of the average children's book was still infused with the heady vapors of Romanticism.

That's right: I'm talking about Hans Christian Andersen. You want tragedy? Take a good gander at The Little Mermaid, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier. In terms of the Shakespearean tragic hero, these tales have protagonists whose passions truly rule over their reason and lead to their downfall. And yet, they are gorgeous, timeless stories. In Ruth Sawyer's classic novel, Roller Skates, tragic stories are explained to the ten-year-old protagonist as being something bad held within something incredibly beautiful, so we can stand looking such sadness in the face, and deal with it. In other words, tragic story is something that we need to psychically survive-- and that includes kids. Makes you think twice about throwing a singing crab into an Andersen tale, doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Our Life in Books: "Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People"

It's time once again, for a few true-life stories of kid-on-book action! See: the spines bent and splintered! See: the insistence of 300 repeat readings! See: the drool-stained pages!

Lately, my almost-two-year-old, Eleanor, has been going through an Identity Crisis.

Well . . . "crisis" is not the right word. Perhaps I should say "Identity Calm" or whatever the true opposite of "crisis" might be. Eleanor, in true toddler fashion, has been very firm and insistent on identifying herself as often and in as many ways as possible. When she catches a glimpse of her reflection, she says, "Nor-Nor." When she spots her be-strollered self on closed-circuit security television, she says, "Nor-Nor." And when her little shadow flits on the grass beside her? "Nor-Nor."

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that my girl, this budding bibliophile, should find herself in all of the books she reads. She's identified herself as the bouncy toddler protagonist of Caroline Uff's Lulu's Busy Day, and also as the boy in Peter McCarty's quiet masterpiece Moon Plane.

The last few weeks, however, Eleanor has extended this book-identification to include her entire family. Especially when we are reading any kind of Mother Goose anthology. Eleanor is always Mary Mary Quite Contrary, or the good king's daughter in "Grey Goose and Gander." But my husband? He's Humpty Dumpty.

Yeah, Humpty Dumpty. Now, lest you immediately get the impression that Brian is a round, pale, bald guy, let me present a comparison. Here's Humpty:

And here's Brian:

Well . . . they're both in close proximity to a wall. Beyond that, I have NO IDEA why Eleanor thinks her Daddy is Humpty. (Although Daddy Humpty sounds like a great name for a rap star.)

And me? I'm always the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe:

Now, that might not seem such a stretch. The Shoe Lady is always pictured with a bunch of kids, so I can understand why she'd make the connection there. But Eleanor also makes sure to inform me that that I am also The Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket:

When Eleanor made this little assertion, it hit me: she thinks I'm old. Mother-Goose-style old. That means being the kind of lady who wears a bonnet. And lives in non-traditional houses. Oldy-old-old. And to a two-year-old, that makes sense. I can't help but think of Paul Fleischman's poem, "Mayflies," when I think of a toddler regarding her ancient parents. "Your minute / Mayfly day / Your hour / Mayfly year." To her, someone capable of doing magical things like peeling a banana or turning on a night light must certainly be an Ancient Source of Cosmic Wisdom.

While my inner Narcissus is hurting, hurting over the comparison ("Noooooo! I'm only 29!!!) I can't help but be a little touched by this very real, honest perception of a child for her parents: as being something so safe, so strong, that they seem to have existed forever.

Like. . . sigh . . . Stonehenge.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Could his later cognitive struggles be the result of a type of Shaken Bear Syndrome?"

I'm a children's librarian; my husband is a medical student. What happens when our worlds collide? This:

Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne

It was published as a lark back in 2000 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). Yeah, it's a joke that seems a bit tired, but what's impressive here is the lengths the authors went to to make this look like a legit journal article. The footnotes! The table! The bizarre suggestion that Kanga buy up the Hundred Acre Wood and turn it into a gated community!

And the medical perspective on all this folderol? My husband responds:

"It seems clear to me that Pooh is perfectly developmentally appropriate for a stuffed bear of his age and that he is a very high functioning individual in his sphere of activity, his eating habits and body morphology are also appropriate for his nature as an imaginary/stuffed bear. This is true for all of the diagnoses given. Whoever says Piglet has failure to thrive has never looked at the standardized growth chart for stuffed/imaginary pigs. "

"Owl is labeled as having a reading disorder from in this chart, but it is clear to all the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood and to me that he has advanced reading skill for any owl, living or stuffed. Show me another owl that can even get close to misspelling his name that well, and I will show you a well trained bird. Sure, if these individuals were adult humans they might have the diagnoses suggested in the article, but as clinicians we will have to wait until they are visited by the Blue Fairy, turned into real people, have problems adjusting, obtain health insurance or medical assistance, and visit us in the clinic to give them these or any other diagnoses."

Yeah, that's the man I love.

For further medicine-meets-kidlit fun, check out "Cinderology: The Cinderella of Academic Medicine," which analyzes doctors' use of the Cinderella story as a medical metaphor.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Where's Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer?

Over at Read Roger, there's a stunningly intelligent discussion about the latest spat of kidlit which features girls who disguise themselves as boys. (Let's see . . . Alphabet of Dreams. Check. The Secret of the Rose. Check . . . ) Sutton calls it a "defining trope" or even a "motif" of children's literature. Responding to Kelly Harold, he writes:

I would argue that what you mean instead is that "in most eras and cultures, girls whom we wish to commemorate for our own culture and era have had to dress as boys, etc." What I mean is, did as high a percentage of Colonial era girls have as much trouble with their sewing as our historical fiction about them would have it?
Amen, brother! I'm sure there's a wealth of debate over the historical evidence of girls' relationships with the gender roles from ages past, but to tell the truth, whenever I come across a historical novel for kids that features girls who actually do attempt to fit into their society, it comes as a breath of fresh air. I think Joan Blos' A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal 1830-32 is one of the best examples of historical fiction with a female protagonist who is smart and strong, but exhibits these traits in a matter fitting her time and place.

Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, on the other hand -- and which I really love and enjoy -- has a protagonist whose personality is so strong that it comes off as anachronistic. Yeah, girls like Catherine may have thought those things back in the Middle Ages, but would they have said them?

As for "girls whom we wish to commemorate for our own culture and era," let's not forget that stories of girls and gender-bending is a motif that stretches far beyond our own culture and era. Lousia May Alcott sent Jo out to shear her hair as part of a war effort (not quite the same as donning pants, but shocking to Victorians nonetheless). And during Alcott's time and before, the story of Joan of Arc -- one of the original cross-dressing hair-shearers -- made for popular reading among girls.

Speaking of Alcott, I think an interesting close to my post on this topic is to be found in Jo's Boys. Interested in how Alcott -- whom many view as a proto-feminist -- dealt with the balance between being smart and independent vs. domesticity? Read her description of the sewing circle created for female college students:
Mrs Meg was the first to propose enlarging this little circle; for as
she went her motherly rounds among the young women she found a sad
lack of order, skill, and industry in this branch of education.
Latin, Greek, the higher mathematics, and science of all sorts
prospered finely; but the dust gathered on the work-baskets, frayed
elbows went unheeded, and some of the blue stockings sadly needed
mending. Anxious lest the usual sneer at learned women should apply
to 'our girls', she gently lured two or three of the most untidy to
her house, and made the hour so pleasant, the lesson so kindly, that
they took the hint, were grateful for the favour, and asked to come
again. Others soon begged to make the detested weekly duty lighter by
joining the party, and soon it was a privilege so much desired that
the old museum was refitted with sewing-machines, tables,
rocking-chair, and a cheerful fireplace, so that, rain or shine, the
needles might go on undisturbed.
Needles undisturbed, indeed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Online Exhibit of the Week: The Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books

Here's the first entry of what (I hope) is a regular Thursday night feature on this blog. I adore perusing rare and unusual children's books. I spent a fair share of my time in library school nosing my way through the Elizabeth Nesbitt Room, and it was always like some delightful combination of treasure hunt and picnic. The handpainted colors! The gilded binding! The fact that I had my very own pair of little white gloves!

Naturally, I still crave such moments (children and work now occupy my once-abundant research time), and I'm sure there's a goodly number of folks out there who do too.

Therefore -- once a week, I will highlight fun, interesting, and delicious online exhibits about children's books and media.

This week, I bring you "Tiny Tomes," otherwise known as the Charlotte M. Smith Collection of Miniature Books.

The story of the collection's origins will resonate with any bibliophile -- Smith was such an avid collector of antique books that her shelves sagged with the weight of them all. She made a deal with her husband that she would limit her collection to books that would fit in a "bookroom" in their house. Clever woman: because of the space limitation, she decided to focus her collection on teeny tiny books. She ended up with over three thousand of them, all less than three inches high. Now the collection is in the hands of the University of Iowa, where it is cherished and enjoyed.

Back in 2001, I had the opportunity to sit next to the lovely Leo and Diane Dillon at a conference lunch. I asked them what direction children's illustration would be headed next. They (naturally) had two answers: first, they said that they thought graphic novels would be huge (check), but that they personally were very interested in minature books and printmaking.

The Smith exhibit highlights why two world-class illustrators would find this so. The collection (which includes a fine portion of children's books and abecedarians, as well as other kinds of books) includes a wealth of different kinds of printmaking and bookbinding. The challenge of making a tiny book seems to beckon bookmakers and book artists into using the most exotic papers, handmade calligraphy, and detailed embossing possible. (Be sure to check out the image below of the spectacular 3"x2 1/4" pop-up book about the Great Fire of London.) Not all of the books are necessarily "antiques" -- there are miniatures that date up through the 1980s, showing how this art form has appealed to bookmakers through the ages. In fact, you can't help looking at a few of them without developing the itch to make a few tiny books yourself.

As for the online exhibit itself, it's extensive and informative but a tad disorganized; the only way to view the books is to flip through the exhibit pages like you would a catalog. Unlike a catalog, there is no linked table of contents or index, which makes it difficult to find particular books. The exhibit is best enjoyed, therefore, if you have some time to kill and don't mind loading a lot of images that you might not care to see.

Interested in creating your own collection of tiny tomes at home? Besides making your own, I'd highly recommend starting out by purchasing Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library, or Trina Schart Hyman's A Little Alphabet. Oh -- and the miniature version of Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family is especially amusing, as the book itself is bound with plush fabric (my copy has spent many hours being cuddled by small children).

It's difficult to find tiny books at libraries, or even big-chain bookstores, so I'd recommend hunting for them at independent bookstores or independent online retailers (make note of the book's dimensions before purchasing). Bring along a tiny magnifying glass, and happy hunting!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Space Child's Mother Goose

by Frederick Winsor, illus. Marian Parry
Simon & Schuster, 1956
Reissued 2001 by Purple House Press

Hey, did anybody notice that today is Pi Day? You know -- March 14 -- 3.14. A perfect day to celebrate all things clever and mathematical. Of course, it also makes an excellent reason to go out and eat some pie. Here's a treat to celebrate this rather irrational day:

Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
he doesn't lay eggs in the Positive Now

Because she's unable to Postulate How.

In the 1950s, architecht Frederick Winsor frequently contributed light verse to the Atlantic Monthly about science, math, and philosophy. In 1956, these and a few more were compiled to make The Space Child's Mother Goose. In an inspired move, the illustrator Marian Parry was asked to contribute to the book what she calls her "own peculiar drawings." Together, they created a world of whimsy just perfect for anyone with a love of word games, questions, and puzzles. Winsor has been described as kind of a distant cousin from the White Knight in Alice in Wonderland, and it shows. Almost all of the verses in this collection are parodies of familiar nursery rhymes, like this one:

Flappity, Floppity, Flip!
The Mouse on the Mobius Strip.

The Strip revolved,
The Mouse dissolved,
In a chronodimensional skip.

Or this one:

Spin along in spatial night,
Artificial Satellite;
Monitor, with blip and beep,

The Universe -- and Baby's sleep.

Other verse sounds familiar, although it's all pure Winsor:

There was an old man in a Time Machine
Who borrowed a Tuesday all painted in green.

His pockets with rockets he used to jam

And he said, "I
have thunk, so I cannot am!"

As you can see from this example, not all of the verses make particular sense, but sparkle instead with lovely rhythms and clever twists of language. Longer poems are included too, such as the science satire "The Theory That Jack Built" ("This is the Flaw/Based on the Mummery/Hiding the Flaw/The lay in th Theory Jack Built") and "A Space Child Would Exploring Go" ("With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach/Heigh Ho! says Anthony Rowley"). Oh, and did I mention that the "Probable-Possible" verse at the beginning of this review is presented in several different languages throughout the book? It's there in French, Greek, Chinese, and even one using Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egads.

(The Greek translation includes the line "She lays eggs in concept, being a sophist-bird.")

Feeling dazzled? Winsor includes footnotes to many of his verses, but even these exist as bits of doggerel -- to define "cortex" and "vortex," he gives us this: "[t]he cortex wraps around a core/Alas! there isn't any vore." For readers wanting some down-to-earth information, there is also an appendix called "Answers."

There are many verses about time travel in this book, and I can't help but wonder if that is part of the reason why this book has aged so well, despite the fact that it is fifty-plus years old. Yes, there are a few references to outdated technology (such as a "Hi-Fi") and one poem, "The Hydrogen Dog and the Cobalt Cat," is a vintage Cold War-era bit about nuclear paranoia. (It's also the most heavyhanded poem in the book.) But most of them, since they deal with timeless concepts, are still as fresh and fun today as they were fifty years ago.

Let's not forget the illustrations! Parry decorates each and every page of this book -- including the gorgeous indigo endpapers, and they are just as amusing as the poems they accompany. She uses delicate lines to create mawkish, birdlike people in old-fashioned dress.
Sheep float in parallel lines into another dimension, elaborate, button-lovely machines rattle and bang while mischiveous, wide-eyed children look on. A few pictures include figures created entirely out of curlicues. It's rare that you see an author and illustrator so happily matched.

The big question is, of course, who is this book for? Initially, I thought that nursery-aged children might be a bit young for these rhymes, but really, the nonsense here makes as much sense as the nonsense in any other Mother Goose anthology. Older children, especially middle-schoolers and up -- will certainly get a kick out of some of these, perhaps even more when introduced by a teacher or other adult friend.

Think twice about passing up this book -- it's true that these verses may not be for everybody, but as the culture of childhood is becoming more and more math-phobic (especially among girls), it's good to pass along something that makes thinking seem merry.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Fat Lit Rides Again

A Utah-based fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson recently scored some dough in the kidlit market:

Sanderson recently received a six-figure advance from Scholastic, the "Harry Potter"-series publisher, for a children's fantasy series about a boy named Alcatraz who does battle with a cult of evil librarians.
Yeah, you read it correctly. Evil librarians. I don't know if this is hurting or helping the general image problem we librarians face. But the book's coming out in early October, and if it's any good, it might mean that I might have my Halloween costume problems solved right now.

Read the whole story here. And thanks to Justin for the link.

Most Beautified Ophelia

In my last post, I waxed enthusiastic about the gorgeous cover of Lisa Fielder's new novel, Romeo's Ex. Didn't see it? Scroll down and get a gander o' that lil' beauty. Just after writing that post, I get on, and do you know what? Fiedler's other book, Dating Hamlet, has gotten a face-lift in paperback form, so the two books match.

Here' s before:
Here's after:

See? I mean, there isn't anything particularly awful about the first cover. It's cute and stylized and included lots of details from the novel. But in terms of catching a wandering eye hovering over the shelves of a bookstore or library? Not so great. Plus, look at the picture of Hamlet up there. He's a total square. You'd never expect that guy to say something enigmatic, melancholy, or romantic. And Ophelia looks like she's experiencing some serous neck cramps.

The second cover, on the other hand, does a perfect job at setting the tone of this frequently comic, dishy novel (although it looks like that dress is about to fall right off of the shoulders there). I'm also awarding bonus points for the phrase "Ophelia Spilleth the Beans!"

Well played, Henry Holt. Well played.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

New Book Roundup

I used to do these new book roundups quite a lot back when I first began this blog, but then I went through a busy period, and they fell by the wayside (geez, they take forever to do!) I've missed writing them, even though I always felt a little redundant, when there are SO many other bloggers reviewing new children's books. But eh -- it's good to partake of the ongoing dialogue about new books.

And keep in mind that when I say "new," I mean "published in the last calendar year." That's cutting-edge enough for me.

The Last Dragon by Silvana De Mari

The Plot: Yorsh is an orphaned elf, blessed with incredible magical powers, but finds he is the last of his kind on earth. Upon the discovery of an ancient prophecy, he goes on a quest to find the last of all dragons, and thus starts a chain of events that lead both him, the repressed people of his kingdom, and a clairvoyant girl named Robi, to freedom.

Ooooooh, I was in the middle of this book when it was awarded a Batcheleder Honor, and can I say that I did a little dance about it? There was an overwhelmingly high number of fantasy books published in 2006, and because this came out in autumn, I think a lot of people missed it.

Go out now, people. This is the one you're going to want to pass on to your grandkids. Whenever I talk about it, I start to sound like the grandpa from The Princess Bride: "It's got everything! Sword fighting, dragons, magic powers, an evil overlord, daring escapes, true love . . ." In other words, most of what we see in De Mari's world is pretty standard fare for most fantasy novels, but is rendered with highly imaginative imagery, witty turns of phrase, and a certain genuineness to the characters that it transcends cliché. De Mari writes with an emotional sincerity that touches something basic and true in the heart, which is a hallmark, I think, of the greatest stories.

Plus, it don't hurt that the hero grows up to be a hottie ("as handsome as the sun," says De Mari). I'm just sayin' is all.

Alabama Moon by Watt Key

The Plot: Ten-year-old Moon is raised as a forest hermit, 19th-century frontier style by his Vietnam vet, government-hating father. When his Pap dies, his last wish is for Moon to continue their lifestyle in Alaska, but instead the state puts Moon in a boys' home. Moon makes friends at the home, escapes to the forest with them, and begins exciting nature survival/run from the law adventure. Meanwhile, Moon begins to question his father's beliefs, and creates new definitions of personal responsibility, friendship, and what it means to be part of a society.

So, if you were to take a truckload of Hatchet, sprinkle it with Holes, and crash-drive it into The Shawshank Redemption, this is probably the book you'd end up with. Watt Key has created a very rough portrait of the South in this story. This book is set WAY down deep in Dixie; I mean, this is a book wherein the local judge doesn't hesitate to lift his robes and take a whizz by the side of the road. However, this setting is tempered with Moon's gentle personality and Key's rich, fascinating descriptions of forest life and survival. (Moon makes mosquito repellent out of acorn oil! And an arrow out of squirrel bones! If he were on Gilligan's Island, he'd be the one to make the coconut transistor radio.) The plot is gripping and quick, and while I think the villain (a cop trying to catch the fugitives) is a bit of a mustache-twirler, it doesn't dampen the book's emotional impact.

I noticed this book on a few mock Newbery lists last year, but it didn't actually win an ALSC award, and do you know why I think that is? There's a long sequence in the middle of the book in which Moon and his friends use a machine gun to blow away empty beer bottles in the middle of a mudpit. There's a lot of boy-with-gun action in this book, and while I know that this is a reality for a lot of kids, there will be many adult readers who may have a problem with it (I personally thought it was a hoot, storywise).

Vive La Paris by Esmé Raji Codell

The Plot: Paris McCray, a fifth grader from inner-city Chicago, is sent to elderly Mrs. Rosen for piano lessons. The two of them form a quirky friendship, the benefits of which -- learning to see the world through rose-colored glasses -- trickle down to the other happenings in Paris' life, particularly her troubles with bullying classmate Tanaeja. When Paris learns that Mrs. Rosen is a survivor of the Holocaust, she momentarily loses her faith in humanity, viewing the world as a place where bullies always win. But with the help of friends and family, she slowly learns to be hopeful again, and learns how to truly care for others in the process.

There's a lot going on in this book -- in addition to the Holocaust and bullying, this book also touches on teen pregnancy, religious faith, racism, and much, much more. The book almost drowns in this mass of issues, but what keeps it afloat is Codell's spot-on ear for child voices, for the politics of classroom relationships, and for the ups and downs of life in a big family. Paris is spunky, smart, and fiercely loyal to her family; her fall from innocence is pretty painful to read, and just a wee bit heavy-handed, but leads to a satisfying conclusion. This book is described as a "companion" to Codell's previous novel, Sahara Special, but stands pretty firmly on its own.

My only request, Ms. Esmé: please, please give us a novel about Darrell, the renegade member of Paris' class! He rocks my world!

Romeo's Ex: Rosaline's Story by Lisa Fiedler

The Plot: It's Romeo and Juliet as told from the perspective of several of the minor characters, principally Rosaline, the girl who rejects Romeo before the play begins. In this story, Rosaline is an apprentice healer as well as Juliet's best cousin and friend; the intelligent girl finds Romeo's advances "nauseating," but finds new affection both in Benvolio (who rescues her during the fight that begins the play) and Mercutio (who takes credit for said rescue).

Okay, okay, I try to limit my book reviews to those for readers ages 0-14, and this is pushing that upper limit, but hey! Look at that pretty, pretty cover! Who can resist that gorgeousness?

There are quite a few novelizations of Shakespeare plays for young readers out there, but I've a special fondness for Fiedler's. Not only does she give the story a decidedly feminist spin, but she has an infectious love for Elizebethan language; the text sparkles with wordplay, double meanings, and quite a few bawdy puns ("To Honor!" Mercutio toasts. "Get on her, and stay on her!"). Dialogue taken directly from the play is given new levels of meaning with the fleshing out of all the minor characters -- what was Mercutio up to during the Capulets' party? Exactly how did Rosaline dump Romeo? -- and even though Fiedler takes liberties with the plot, her characters remain characteristially Shakespearean: they fall in love, rage with fury, and experience major changes of heart almost instantaneously; the plot is peppered with bumbling, dimwitted mechanicals and a rather humbug undertaker. Several chapters are narrated by Tybalt's ghost, allowing readers to see scenes inaccessible to the other characters. Sly references to other plays are also here; the seedy tavern in Verona is named The Untamed Shrew.

While the book does require some advance familiarity with the play, the fun and drama in this book is pretty addictive; the entire time I was reading it, I kept wanting to IM my friends with dishy gossip about the characters ("OMG, Rosaline is totally crushing on Mercutio!") Pick it up, and you'll be sucked in, too. You've been warned.

Oh, and speaking of Taming of the Shrew: I'm betting it's the pick for Fiedler's next Shakespeare spin. Ooooh, I hope I'm right!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Poetry Friday: Avast, Ye Poetry Snobs!

So in the Feb. 19-26th issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear gave us a portrait of the happenings over at the Poetry Foundation since Ruth Lilly gave them lots and lots of money. The portrait was, in a word, unflattering. Apparently, the Poetry Foundation has made significant efforts to make poetry commercially viable -- mainly by encouraging poetry that is more accessible to mainstream readers -- and you can just feel Goodyear's disdain for it, particularly in her description of the new Children's Poet Laureate prize, created by the Foundation:

In September, the foundation announced the latest of a group of prizes intended, Barr says, "to throw a spotlight of recognition on under-illuminated corners of the poetry world," and named Jack Prelutsky America's first Children's Poet Laureate. Prelutsky, who has published more than forty books of children's poems, is, you might say, the ultimate example of a poet who keeps his audience in mind. "I Have a Pet Tomato," from "It's Raining Pigs and Noodles," reads:
     I have a pet tomato,
it doesn't have a stem.
My friends have pet asparagus--
why can't I be like them?
The Children's Laureate was Penny Barr's idea. "I'm not a poet," she told me. "I'm not versed in poetry, but I am versed in bringing up children. It's a natural for me. The adult poets have never heard of Jack Prelutsky. The big secret is that these people are making a lot of money!"
Wow, I had no idea that Jack Prelutzky was rakin' in the dough.

When Prelutsky was first announced as the first winner of this prize, there was a general feeling of "Really? Really really?" in the kidlit world. I don't know what bothers me more, the fact that the creator of the prize openly admits that she doesn't know anything about children's poetry, or the obvious fact that Dana Goodyear doesn't, either. She uses an out-of-context snippet of Prelutsky's poetry to snipe at the mission of the Poetry Foundation, and you gotta admit, that's kinda low.

I'm gonna bet that a lot of poets my age or a little older may not recognize Jack Prelutsky's name, but they'd remember with a wistful sigh The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Or It's Valentine's Day. Or the scads of other Prelutsky works that, because child readers often have trouble remembering authors' names into adulthood, continue to be underappreciated.

What Goodyear obviously forgets is that without poets like Prelutsky, Douglas Florian, or Naomi Shihab Nye, a lot of kids would miss out on poetry -- most kids I know love the stuff! And without kid poetry enthusiasts, you're unlikely to have very many adult poetry enthusists. There's nothing wrong with rewarding the hard work and effort that goes into the task of bringing kids to poetry, regardless of its economic power.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Our Life in Books: Ding Dong, the Bells are Gonna Chime

"Our Life in Books" is a feature I've been meaning to add to this blog for a while -- descriptions of my children's reactions to the books they read -- how they are influenced by them. Some of these may involve Grand Gestures of Cuteness. This is coming from my four-year-old son Jeffrey, and my two-year-old daughter Eleanor.

Yeah, scenes from my home life. This, actually, is what a lot of people wanted when I was being requested to begin a blog. But I wanted to write about the kidlitosphere.

So: the compromise. I'll write about my family
only if it has some direct link to children's literature. Like the time I read The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and I later caught Jeffrey stuffing apples and lettuces from the fridge in a real, actual red handkerchief. Or the time I caught Eleanor kissing a bottle of salad dressing . . . um, but that story is for another post.

For example, take Jeffrey. He's really interested in weddings. A lot of kids his age spend time thinking about family relationships, especially marriage, so this doesn't surprise me. What's interesting is the
level of obsession. He's always talking about marrying his best friend Liesl and having four children -- two girls, two boys. "We are falling in loooove," he says.

Yesterday he stumbled out of bed with the stomach flu, stood at the top of the stairs, and announced, "TODAY IS MY WEDDING DAY!" And when it came time to go to bed that evening, he looked at me sadly and said, "Mom, I forgot to marry somebody today." I patted him on the arm and told him that there are always more fish in the sea, and he can always get married another day.


But what has been really interesting is watching Jeffrey make preparations for his upcoming "wedding." When I picked him up from preschool today, he was busy snipping construction paper into bits, "for the wedding." He frequently marches about in his pirate costume and a top hat "for the wedding."

This afternoon, he was spending time playing with my childhood collection of twenty-something Beatrix Potter books (
Benjamin Bunny among them), and discovered the dark green hardbacks underneath the white books' dustjackets. Delighted, he then removed all of the books' dustjackets and spent time making elaborate stacks of them around the living room.

When I began to clean up the mess later, he got upset. "Those are decorations for my wedding!" he exclaimed, instantly tearful at the dismantling of his affair.

"But you can have other decorations," I explain. "Wouldn't you like some pretty flowers or music for your wedding?"

"No," he replies, folding his skinny arms and jutting his chin in the air. "Books are the most beautiful decoration."

Couldn't agree more.

Speaking of Kids and Technology . . .

Over at the always lovely blog Educating Alice, Monica Edinger (as part of her ongoing series of articles about teaching with blogs) has posted quite a few podcasts of her students' Literary Salons -- times when kids eat cookies and read aloud from their favorite books. Take a minute to enjoy fourth-graders' presentations of The Lightning Thief, Magyk, Rules, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These aren't booktalks (like on Reading Rainbow) -- just kids indulging in their favorite stories. Good stuff.

Teen Tech Week Part II

The week is almost over, but there's still time to celebrate all things adolescent and electronic. Have you hugged a texting teen today? Bowed down before a Nintendo Wii? Done a dance in your library's computer lab whilst strewing flowers in a display of almost-spring ecstasy?


Then take a gander at a few more of my favorite little tidbits about teenagers and technology:

First up, take a look at It's a website created by the Girls, Math & Science Partnership (in conjunction with the Carnegie Science Center here in Pittsburgh), with the aim of giving girls an online world where its acceptable to enjoy genomes, cosines, and the like. Not only is BrainCake absolutely beautiful and very fun, but it also has information about the Click! program:

It is the first program of its type – part Charlie’s Angels, part Real World. Click! uses specialized tablet computer interfaces, location-aware mobile devices, and digital documentation to engage girls in a six-day camp. After five days of training, Click! girls have an all-day Saturday adventure at Carnegie Science Center that, if successful, will earn them a new status level in the Click! agency.
They run around the city and solve mysteries and stuff! Using cool techie gadgets!! It's like living out all of your Kiki Strike fantasies!!! Why can't I be a 13-year-old girl again? (Geez, something I thought I'd NEVER say.)

Anything that wants to bring more teenage girls to science gets a raised glass from me. Good work, guys.

If that doesn't satisfy your Teen Tech cravings, then take a gander at John Green's vlog posting on the video game Nerd Fighters. Quoth he:

“Using the English Nerd when you’re playing “Nerd Fighters” is kind of like picking Toad when you’re playing Mario Kart.”

Yeah, I'd say that's a pretty apt description. There's no WAY I could have taken down a Band Nerd when I was in high school. They're far too muscular, carrying around those instruments and stuff. And don't even get me started on their cunning ability to walk and make music at the same time. Yikes.

Also, take a look at the Brief History of Time Travel. One of my favorite essays from years past. Um, it has nothing to do with teenagers. But I'm sure teenagers would like it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Holy Samoleons, It's Teen Tech Week!

This year the Young Adult Library Services Association decided to band together for the first-ever Teen Tech Week, lasting March 4 - 10, a "celebration aimed at getting teens to use their libraries for the different technologies that are offered there, such as DVDs, databases, audiobooks, electronic games and more." Very groovy. If you don't mind me bragging, I think my library's YA department has the inside track on this idea with its collection of circulating X-Box games.

I thought it wouldn't hurt to contribute to this week-long technorama. After all, I earned some serious tech cred back in the days of my youth:

Yeah, that was pretty much me, circa 1991. If you haven't seen the full exploits of Teen Girl Squad, you can find them here; although the humor doesn't quite work for everybody, it amuses me immensely.

Anyway. Teen Tech Week. For starters, I thought it would be absolutely necessary to present to you:

The Girls' Guide to Geek Guys

and its companion piece,

The Guys' Guide to Geek Girls

Interestingly, both of these pieces were written by women -- the first for the now-defunct Bunnyhop magazine, and the second by a the good lady who heads up an organization for women in computer science. Oh, and it contains the immortal line, "the 'spandex in space' phenomenon is EVIL . . . unless it happens to be Picard in his riding pants. Mulder in his speedo, while not technically in space, is quite acceptable also.". Read and learn, my people. Read and learn.

Oh, and a new Forgotten Book will be up tonight. Sorry about the delay!